Friday, 25 March 2011

Justice and mercy

While covering the A level syllabus I find that the older texts, written in an age steeped in Christian teaching and theology, are the most enjoyable and challenging to teach to twenty first century teenagers. Shakespearean and Jacobean drama presents challenges, not only in terms of understanding the language used, but also in grasping concepts and ideas which are now quite alien. Yet good literature, although written for a very different society, tends to deal with issues and truths which transcend any moment in history. Measure for Measure, which we have been studying this term,  has provoked some interesting debate about whether we emphasise retribution or reformation in dealing with transgressors, whether we take account of mitigating circumstances, the intention or the consequences of our actions and how it is impossible to get "justice" right.

Angelo, one of the central characters of the play, is a puritan who has no doubts about pursuing justice at the expense of mercy. He is also guilty of greater sin than those he condemns and the play seems to swing towards mercy as the greater and more divine attribute. Rather  than being a wholly modern and woolly liberal sentiment, this sense of mercy as most truly divine was evident in former times. The contrast between human and divine justice is also key; God's justice is perfect as he sees the heart, human justice is of necessity flawed. It has amazed me recently to read many conservative blogs discussing Bell's universalism and harping upon hell as "justice for all."  Just as strikingly there is  a seeming obliviousness to the Christian concept that judging is best left to God, we judge at our peril. I think Shakespeare would have smiled and thought that across the centuries puritans do not change their spots.

I leave you with Isabella's plea to Angelo to  realise his own frailty and humanity, and in that  knowledge of his own vulnerablity to find the divine quality of mercy. It is a good message for Lent and Easter as well.

                                          Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;

                                          And He that might the vantage best have took
                                          Found out the remedy. How would you be,
                                          If He, which is the top of judgment, should
                                          But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
                                          And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
                                          Like man new made.

1 comment:

  1. How very apt and thought-provoking, Sue. This isn't a play I've studied and the quotation is now in my commonplace file. Thanks for this.